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Translated Books that have been Adapted into Film

By Niina Bailey, Alice Reynolds and Toby Smollet

Books get adapted into film all the time and most of them are based on English language books. However, there are plenty of translated books that have been adapted into English language films. This week, we wanted to highlight a few of those books as many people might not know they were translated.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

Translated by Henning Koch. Published by Atria Books in 2014

You might know this story better by the name A Man Called Otto, which is what the English language film adaptation was renamed to. It was released in January 2023 and stars Tom Hanks in the titular role. It is actually the second film adaptation of the book as it was adapted in Sweden in 2015. Both films are based on A Man Called Ove, originally a Swedish book about a fifty-nine-year-old man who has recently lost his wife and then been forced to retire. He is a grumpy man, described on the blurb as “the bitter neighbour from hell.” The book follows Ove as he meets his new neighbours, a young couple and their two young daughters, who initially annoy him, but through the course of the book, become unexpected friends. The book has a simple premise, but is still a heart-warming story about grief, love and friendship.

Backman was inspired to write the book after reading an article about a man called Ove who got annoyed over buying tickets to an art museum. Backman related to this because he considers himself to be “not great at talking to people” so he started writing a blog about things that annoy him.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Translated by Arthur Wheen (1929) by Little, Brown, and Company and Brian Murdon (1993) by Bodley Head

All Quiet on the Western Front is a well-known phrase associated with World War I, however less known is that the phrase is translated from a German book by Erich Maria Remarque written in 1928.

Remarque’s novel first published in German as Im Westen nichts Neues has since been adapted into two films and one television film. The book, written by a German war veteran, centres on Paul Bäumer and his fellow soldiers’ mental and physical suffering during the war. Largely autobiographical, Remarque, unique for his time, turns away from the typical patriotic war rhetoric and takes an anti-war stance.

The first English translation of the book was written in 1929 by Arthur Wheen who gave it the title All Quiet on the Western Front. In the second translation, by Brian Murdoch in 1993, he nuanced the phrase to “there was nothing new to report on the Western Front” to which he substantiates that as Murdoch’s phrase (all quiet) has become a common phrase in the English language, he wanted to give it a boost of originality. Furthermore, as Wheen was subject to some degree of censorship, he aimed to give the text back its original impact.

Nevertheless, based on the original translation was the double Oscar receiving film ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ produced. Directed by Lewis Milestone, it was the first Best Picture Winner at the Oscars that was originally based on a novel.

Most recently, the first German language film version has appeared on our screens. It has received commendation for its timelessness and powerful hold even today.

Bullet Train by Kotaro Isaka

Translated by Sam Malissa. Published by Harvill Secker in 2021

Known as Maria Beetle in the original Japanese, Bullet Train is the second instalment in the Hitman trilogy of books. The common profession of the main cast may now be obvious, but little else is in the novel or subsequent film – the story hurtles forward with the speed of, say, a bullet train with the brakes cut.

The story is driven by its interpersonal connections – Lemon and Tangerine’s brotherhood, the vast array of complicated parent-child relationships and the ways in which our paths become tangled in those of others. The story’s message is most strongly conveyed through “Ladybug,” a spy who bemoans constantly his lack of luck but who comes to realise the existence of a kind of Machiavellian justice.

In the context of discussing translated literature making waves in anglophone film, Bullet Train is of particular interest due to its casting – despite being written by a Japanese author and based on a bullet train leaving Tokyo, this is a significantly non-Japanese cast, with Brad Pitt occupying the screen for the most time of any cast member. The decision to hire non-Asian actors was in fact defended by the author himself, who described the characters as “ethnically malleable.” In spite of this, the film continues to attract criticism for its whitewashing of the original characters.

The novel is as thrilling a read as the film, and for those who felt that the movie’s narrative began to veer off the rails towards the end, the original work may provide a bit more structure.



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